A conversation with Shoog McDaniel

Presented by the Uniter Speaker Series

Photographic artist and fat liberation activist Shoog McDaniel will give a talk at the West End Cultural Centre (WECC) on March 10 as part of the Uniter Speaker Series. The talk will be hosted by comedian and local television personality Issa Kixen.

Supplied photo

With Kixen’s facilitation, McDaniel will give an overview of their photographic journey and their process in learning to love their body through photographing other fat bodies, as well as a presentation of select works from their large catalogue.

A self-proclaimed fat, queer, Floridian freak, McDaniel relishes in terms previously used to hurt them. Reclamation of the words “fat” and “freak” are important parts of their work and identity.

“When I was growing up, and definitely since I’ve come out as genderqueer, and just looking how I look, I can’t really tell (if people) are giving me nasty looks because of my weight or my gender or my haircut. 

“There’s all of these factors that go into who I am, and who a lot of my friends are – things that people would just label as weird, or different, strange. And I’m just embracing that by saying ‘freak.’ 

“I like that word. There’s a saying, ‘freak what you feel’, which is one of my favourite sayings. I like being a freak. I think it’s liberating, and it makes me feel special, and makes me feel a part of something. Gender freaks, fat freaks, people that are not trying to fit in or trying to be part of the norm.”

After they graduated high school in the late 1990s, McDaniel was gifted a handful of cameras that their friends found in a dumpster. Their passion for documenting people was born in inheriting those beloved garbage-cameras.

“It was really fun to have a role in my friend group. It kind of gave me less anxiety to have something to do,” McDaniel says. “I just noticed that people were really happy when I could provide them with pretty documentation of our hangouts.”

Deciding not to pursue photography in post-secondary school, McDaniel chose to study social work instead, still taking photographs along the way.

“When I joined Instagram in 2012, it wasn’t for having a photography career. I was just posting photos of my friends. I did a few different photo series, and then it kind of blew up when I started to do fat nudes.”

Not long after joining Instagram, McDaniel’s work did indeed blow up. With over 90,000 Instagram followers, it’s clear that their work has struck a meaningful chord.

McDaniel has shown work from coast to coast, boasting exhibitions in both New York and Los Angeles. However, their dream is to be able to show work in an enormous, warehouse-like space, complete with large-scale reproductions of their work.

McDaniel’s dreamy portraits of fat nude bodies in nature, in particular their underwater photographs, have an undeniable Renaissance or Rococo-era art feel, but they insist that the inspiration for their photographs is far simpler. 

“A lot of people give me that feedback. I’m not a big art study-er, I’m not,” they say. 

“I just love emotion. I love creating movement in photos. I love connection. I love flow, and I think that really lends itself to specifically the underwater stuff. I can make it really flowy and pretty and have people just barely touching … I just like the feeling that I can emote (through) people when they pose in those certain ways.”

“It’s comforting to me, and looks very pretty. A lot of people are like, ‘is it because of this or because of that,’ and it’s really just because, for me, it’s very, very appealing to look at. It’s simple in that way, to me. I can just look at it and be like ‘oh, that’s really nice.’”

Being underwater is no easy feat on a good day, but luckily for them, McDaniel’s size allows them to take underwater photographs with relative ease.

“I’ve been swimming in these springs that are kind of like Florida’s gems. They’re not really well-known, and they’re all over (the state),” they say. “I’m fat so I float, and that’s a real big advantage. I say to my friends that one of my fat privileges is that I can just stay afloat without having to do any labour at all.

“A lot of times I’m holding (the camera) underwater and want (the perspective) to be from a lower angle, but I can’t dive that deep, because I’m too buoyant, so I’m holding the camera randomly and hoping that I'm taking a photo of somebody, kind of aiming it in their direction. A lot of it’s by chance.”

In addition to their own art practice, McDaniel offers photoshoots on a sliding price scale to Black and Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC) and transgender women.

“I think it’s about being a marginalized human being and also recognizing that I do have a lot of privilege in the world and wanting to give. My camera is a nice camera, and I can take pictures that people can use for different things, and I want that to be a resource and an (access point) for people who are more marginalized than me in my community.”

Nature, specifically the swamps of Florida, are just as much a subject as people within McDaniel’s body of work. Their affinity for the outdoors of their home state was realized when they temporarily moved to Philadelphia. 

“(Florida’s swampland is) one of the most biodiverse regions in the nation. It is very special. It’s also disappearing very rapidly, and so I want to document it as much as possible.”

They add that the climate and geography of Florida is critical to their mental wellbeing; surrounding themselves in nature and bearing witness to its beauty is invaluable to them.

“It’s just a very special-ass place … It looks like FernGully here. I’m looking out my window right now, and there’s all these ferns and flowers, everything’s blooming all the time. I mean, it’s just a very magical place and I feel pretty strongly about its healing qualities.”

Shoog McDaniel will speak at the West End Cultural Centre on March 10 as part of the Uniter Speaker Series. Doors are at 7:15 p.m., and the event begins at 8 p.m. This event is free, and all ages are welcome. The venue is physically accessible, and ASL interpretation is available upon request.


Published in Volume 74, Number 20 of The Uniter (March 5, 2020)

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